Hot meals and warm hearts for cold winter nights
Niagara Falls Community Outreach opens its door for all at free community suppers
When people hear the words “soup kitchen,” they may equate it with lowbrow food. That is, until they walk through the doors of Niagara Falls Community Outreach, which operates a year-round soup kitchen on Lawrence Avenue.
In particular, when they head over to the former Mormon church building for the nightly, free community suppers that launched on Nov. 1 and run until the end of April, their perception of soup kitchen food will be forever changed.
That’s because, through the selfless dedication of an army of about 300 volunteers and the deep connections that NFCO has made with numerous community partners, meals and lunches served from the high-end, commercial-grade kitchen are anything but lowend.
Inside the gleaming kitchen, barely an hour before the doors opened for the first of the cold-weather dinners on a rainy, blustery evening, volunteers Judy Todd, Jane Shores, Joanne Hoare, Mary Ellen White and Bev Walsh were busy making mouth-watering, handmade food for the people soon to pour in.
On the menu that night: trays of cheese ravioli, meatballs, green salad, bread. and homemade, fresh caramel-apple cake with whipped topping.
“It’s comfort food for a night like this,” said agency chair and fundraising lead Chris
Watling, also helping out with husband Harry Watling.
The agency serves up almost 44,000 meals a year, between the lunches served every weekday year-round, and the cold-weather suppers served seven days a week from 5 to 6 p.m. over the sixmonth period with the exception of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve and
New Year's Day.
Watling said that’s all done on a budget of $140,000, all of which must be fundraised. “We receive no government support,” she said.
The well-oiled machine runs with a single staff person: kitchen manager Holly Voice, who Watling said is a genius at organizing and managing food donations that fill the kitchen’s walkin freezer. Among the many churches, businesses and other donors who support the soup kitchen, Watling said, the two Niagara Falls casinos send four shipments of food to NFCO each week.
But it’s not throwaway food. “It’s cooked fresh food,” said Watling. “It’s not left-over; it’s flashed frozen and brought here.
“We get chicken, ribs, Salisbury steak, meatballs, sausage, lamb chops, chili, shepherd’s pie.”
The evening dinners are allinclusive events that draw people from various backgrounds, ages and needs. The entry cost? Simply treating people with respect.
“It’s an open-door policy — anybody’s welcome,” said Watling.
“There is respect we give to our volunteers; there is respect we give to our guests,” she said.
“The meals are served with the intention to provide nourishment to their body, but (with) dignity, not judging why.”
Each evening, different groups of up to 14 people step up, from students from A.N. Myer Secondary School and Saint Paul Catholic High School, to volunteers from various churches, community groups and businesses, to prep, cook, clean and serve. One man drives in all the way from Niagara-on-the-Lake with two friends to scrub pots and pans clean.
“We have people in their 80s and early 90s who have been here for years,” said Watling.
Tuesday nights, it’s volunteers from Our Lady of the Scapular Church who handle the meals. That’s the night that two of the ladies take turns overseeing cooking of meat loaf — but ask for the secret recipe and you’ll get a stern scowl of disapproval.
Just as agencies operating food banks in Niagara have seen demand continuing to increase, demand has also been climbing at the soup kitchen’s lunches. It’s likely the suppers will also see numbers climb.
“The lunches have been higher this summer,” said Watling. “Our average lunch is about 100 people a day, (but) we’ve had many days with 125, 140.”
In the face of that continuing increase in demand, agency volunteer Judy Todd said NFCO is launching a new campaign with pamphlets and emails, with the goal of raising enough to serve the dinners year-round. People or businesses are being asked to donate enough to pay for 100 dinners (about $350), or to donate time for such things as preparing and serving food, and doing cleanup.
“We’re thinking as a teambuilding exercise for offices they might to do that, or (for) a family instead of giving Christmas gifts they can donate the money,” said Todd.
Once people come into the soup kitchen and see how it operates, she said, it’s usually a pleasant eye-opener for them.
“We find, once people come here, they see what a great charity it is,” she said. “Because we only have one staff person, (donations) go right to the food, right to the people.
“People like the fact that all the money they’re donating goes to feeding people who are hungry.”
Ready for opening night of the daily community suppers being served from the Niagara Falls Community Outreach kitchen were, from left: Judy Todd, Jane Shores, Joanne Hoare, Chris Watling, Mary Ellen White, Bev Walsh and Harry Watling.